Why Do We Care About Celebrities?

celebrity worship, fandom, celebrity crush,
You know them well. (wikipedia images)

Why do any of us care about celebrities? There certainly are downsides, from negative comparisons with ourselves to time wasted reading the latest gossip. As GeekMom Lisa Tate wrote recently about celebrities in Responsible Fandom,

I’ve learned that investing too much of one’s affections toward an individual–no matter how talented or appealing they may seem–is almost always a way to become disillusioned and disappointed. 

I have my own theory (probably not at all original) about how our innate need for connection is confounded by technology. To explain, I have to start with how we experience connection from our earliest moments.

As newborns we already communicate with our eyes. The distance between a baby in arms and nursing mother is eight to 15 inches, perfect for our focusing ability. We hunger for eye contact and tell others how to respond by looking delighted, looking away, watching intently, or drifting off to sleep. When we’re cared for by people who are nurturing and responsive we learn to trust.

By the time we’re a few months of age we are held upright in our parents’ arms, still in close facial range. Because we are still new to speech, we pay close attention to a parent’s expression—particularly in new or unsettling situations. We associate eye contact with the comfort of close body proximity. We continually input the sensation of being held along with correlating movement, smells, tastes, and sounds.

As we get older we’re still in close proximity to caregivers and family members, but now few close friend too. Chances are good we’ve experienced the strong impact of  an angry coach or disciplining teacher too close as well.

There are cultural variations in personal space as we grow into adulthood but in general, close personal contact has a lot to do with close emotional connection. We care about the people we’re closest to, literally, and our emotional health hinges on whether they care about us. We also have, whether we recognize it or not, close associations between their facial expressions and our own self image. That may be why brief sexual encounters and bad relationships are so emotionally damaging— not enough time spent looking with affection at one another’s faces. We’re left feeling as if we aren’t entirely ourselves in the relationship, we’re not SEEN for who we are. That may be the case in unhealthy family dynamics too—not enough face time or face time associated with unresponsive nurturing (either inattentive or intrusive). And inappropriate facial closeness, a screaming boss or threatening bully or dangerous intruder, can strip away this very essential boundary we establish early on that only welcomes nurturing people to get that close.

Closeness to another person’s face normally also means sensory input–the smell, touch, taste, and movement unique to the moment.  This full body information helps us continually form a sense of ourselves in relation to other people, essentially to fully inhabit our experiences.

How many people have you been in close facial proximity to over and over, so many times that their faces are more known to you than your own face? I’m guessing not that many. In childhood it was likely your parents, maybe a grandparent, and a close sibling or two. In adulthood it may be a partner (or several partners over time) and your own children. Tally that up. Perhaps a dozen people in total?

I know, I’m slow getting around to my point, but here it is. We are primed to care about and expect reciprocal caring from people whose faces we regularly see up-close, to know we have a place in each other’s lives.

Screens change all of that.

Movies, television, videos, and some video games bring strangers’ faces into personal range. You aren’t nose to nose with the screen but zoom shots bring expressive lips and eyes up close, letting our brains experience an intimacy that isn’t there.  That’s the only way acting techniques work, when viewers suspend reality by believing what’s on the screen. These screens have been around a scrap of time in the long expanse of human history. We’ve evolved to care intensely for and do everything we can to stay in touch with those who have been repeatedly in close eye contact with us. They are (our bodies and minds believe) the core members of our tribe. Now there’s a good chance you see close-up faces of broadcasters, movie stars, and sports figures at least as many hours a day, probably more, than you do your close friends and family.

I deeply appreciate the way technology allows us to learn and connect. I’m a movie-watcher and follow several TV series, so I’m not pointing any fingers. But I am intrigued about the way technology intersects with, and may very well intrude upon, the unspoken essence of loving connection.

I wonder if this explains our obsession with celebrities and absorption with lives of reality TV participants. I wonder if this relates to widespread problems in sustaining relationships, to general malaise, and to the fact that ten times more people are suffering major depression than during World War II. (Yes, there are other factors.)

If we expect reciprocal attention and care from those whose faces are close to us, yet those faces can’t see us, it may very well reinforce a sense of loneliness and misery. It would drive us back to those screens, to look again and again at eyes that for the moment seem so close.

What do you think?

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Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.